Hermiston braces for kindergarten challenge as full-day approaches

<p>Kindergarten students in Martha Liebe’s class at Highland Hills during a recent lesson. Hermiston will likely be forced to add more teachers and more rooms when the state requires full-day kindergarten in 2015.</p>

In three years, the Hermiston School District might not have room for all its kindergartners.

Last week, the Hermiston School Board of Education opted to save $800,000 from a federal E-Rate grant to build modular classrooms to handle the growing student numbers. Currently, the district is at 92 percent capacity in the elementary schools with seven open classrooms split between the five schools.

“Right now, we have a little room for growth at every school. That’s what you want,” Wade Smith, interim superintendent, told School Board members last week.

On average, the district fills one additional elementary classroom a year because of growing enrollment, a steady rate that would allow about seven years before the district had to add classrooms.

Because of a legislative move last spring, however, Smith said the district will have to add rooms in 2015, when legislation supporting full-day kindergarten goes into effect. The Hermiston School District offers half-day kindergarten classes, so although it has 400 kindergartners, it only needs room and teachers for 200.

Most of the district’s kindergarten teachers have two classes a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. But when the district switches to full-time kindergarten, each teacher will have only one class a day. With the new legislation, the district will receive some additional funding — Oregon will now fund each kindergartner at a full-day instead of a half-day rate — but Smith said that will not cover all the costs involved with the transition.

“When we go to full-day kindergarten, basically you’re doubling the number of rooms, teachers, buses,” Smith said. “Having the facilities is only one of the challenges. We now have to go out and hire 11 more teachers, provide for seven new buses. When you start to add everything in, it’s an extremely expensive program. The numbers are staggering.”

Smith said “a handful” of families have requested transfers to other nearby districts to take advantage of full-time kindergarten, but those families must also meet other criteria before a transfer is approved.

“We have had a number of families in our community question why we don’t offer it,” Smith said. “We all agree that full-day kindergarten is a wonderful program for kids, the question is funding. I couldn’t imagine being in a large district with thousands of kindergarten students or a district with declining enrollment and trying to deal with this change.”

But Hermiston’s kindergarten concerns don’t stop with full-day classes. Enrollment in the district’s primary classes continue to be larger than older grades, and those numbers could mean Hermiston High School will exceed capacity in five years.

“Typically, being very general, we have more than 400 kids per grade in kindergarten through seventh, eighth grade. In the high school, we have grades of about 350 kids, about 1,400 at the high school,” Smith said. “All of a sudden as these classes of 400 or more move up and replace these classes of 350, we’re looking at an excess of 1,600 (students) down the road at the high school.”

As of Oct. 25, the Hermiston School District had 5,105 students in grades K-12. Of those students, 345 are seniors in high school; 417 are in kindergarten.

The trend follows the rest of the grades as well.

Districtwide, 1,699 students are enrolled in the lowest four grades: 417 in kindergarten, 458 in first grade, 436 in second grade and 388 in third grade.

At Hermiston High, the district’s highest four grades have 1,461 students: 375 freshmen, 367 sophomores, 374 juniors and 345 seniors.

To prepare for the possibility reaching capacity at the high school, the district has set aside a portion of bond money — more than $3 million — for purchase of the Umatilla County Fairgrounds. That deal is currently in negotiations, but the district has said its interest in the property is for expansion.

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